Opinion

‘We need to shift the debate away from vaccine passports to supporting pubs reopening’

By Mark Flanagan, CEO of Shield Safety Group and chairman of the UK Safe to Trade Scheme

- Last updated on GMT

'Inequitable, barriers to entry': Asking hospitality staff to police social interactions in a setting that is about service and being ‘hospitable’ risks creating another flare point for teams that are already under pressure
'Inequitable, barriers to entry': Asking hospitality staff to police social interactions in a setting that is about service and being ‘hospitable’ risks creating another flare point for teams that are already under pressure

Related tags: Health and safety, Pub, Pubco + head office, Coronavirus, lockdown

Last week when appearing before the Commons Liaison Committee, Boris Johnson, announced that pub landlords may be given the power to prevent anyone without a Covid jab from entering their premises, via a vaccine passport scheme.

It’s an idea that has created uproar in an industry that is already struggling, after being subjected to some of the UK’s most stringent Covid rules and regulations over the last twelve months.

On the surface, you can see why the Government might suggest such a scheme. 

A vaccination passport could potentially allow for reduced social distancing and therefore a larger pub capacity, which equals far more profitably, while helpfully pushing those sitting on the vaccine fence to take the necessary leap. 

However, dig a little deeper and there are many practical considerations that make it unrealistic for a sector that has already implemented measures that go beyond those of other UK sectors, to comply with Government guidance and keep both its employees and customers safe. 

From adopting the use of booking apps, operating under reduced capacity to re-training employees, implementing social distancing measures and adopting QR codes for NHS Test and Trace, the investment from the industry has been immense at a time when profitability has been low. 

Introducing a vaccine passport scheme could add yet another layer of cost, and complexity, into businesses that have spent the last year hanging on by a thread.

‘A nudge strategy’ 

Surely, now is the time for the focus to shift towards how we help hospitality businesses to reopen safely, in line with the vaccination programme roll-out, rather than introducing further barriers with questionable benefits. 

Managing such a scheme could raise far more problems than it solves, from the consequent HR repercussions of whether a ‘no jab, no job’ policy would have to be introduced, to health and safety and wider significant ethical issues. 

One could argue that making things compulsory risks feeding into individual suspicions around the vaccine. Indeed, a small survey in Israel, backed up in other international studies, showed that the idea of making vaccines compulsory led to anger and lowered uptake among those who were already reluctant. 

You also can’t help but wonder if the idea behind vaccine passports for pubs is rooted in a nudge strategy that pushes the public towards uptake, without Government having to make vaccination mandatory.  

With many young people reportedly hesitant to take up the vaccine, a nudge approach that plays on restricting access to pubs and clubs, could be a way to encourage uptake, albeit one which puts hospitality front and centre of the Covid frontline.  

Creating another 'flare point'

As others have remarked, the idea of vaccine passports operating in pubs seems ill thought out. There are both public health Covid risks and wider health and safety risk associated with such a scheme.

One major concern is whether a vaccine passport rule would create a false sense of security where an expectation that every person in a venue is Covid-free, meaning that social distancing and other controls could fall by the wayside.  

Given the potential for fraudulent vaccine passports, similar to age verification and false IDs, this could have very serious public health consequences. 

You also can’t talk about mandatory Covid passports to access hospitality services without acknowledging the additional pressure that this would put on employees. 

Clients we work with have already had to increase conflict resolution training so that their people can deal with the public reaction to previous waves of measures. Asking hospitality staff to police social interactions in a setting that is about service and being ‘hospitable’ risks creating another flare point for teams that are already under pressure. 

There’s also the widely publicised point being made by UKHospitality, which is that vaccine passports in pubs will be unjust, especially for those who for medical reasons can’t get a vaccination, such as pregnant women. This is aside from the fact that such schemes could not be operated until all adults in the UK had had a chance to receive a vaccine. 

It seems hospitality is being asked to bear the brunt of another test and learn strategy and it just doesn’t feel fair. 

Arguably if such an approach is valid, then there are settings better suited to apply it to because of the way they operate, because they will reopen sooner and because of the demographics of the customers they serve.

After a long hard winter that has seen pubs doors remain firmly shut, perhaps vaccine passports for pubs isn’t the debate we should be having right now. 

Rather than focus on creating further inequitable, barriers to entry, with less than a couple of weeks until doors reopen, now should be a time to support the most British of institutions and for industry and Government to come together to consider more well thought through ways to help pubs to get back on their feet again.

Related topics: Health & safety

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